EGERTON, Thomas I (1540-1617), of Lincoln's Inn, Islington, York House and Harefield, Mdx. and of Chester.
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Family and Education
b. 23 Jan. 1540, illegit. s. of Sir Richard Egerton of Ridley, Cheshire by Alice Sparke. educ. Brasenose, Oxf. 1556; L. Inn 1560, called 1572. m. (1) bef. 1576, Elizabeth (d.1588), da. of Thomas Ravenscroft of Bretton, Flints., 2s. John and Thomas II 1da.; (2) privately 1597, Elizabeth (d.1600), da. of William More I, sis. of Sir George More of Loseley, wid. of Richard Polsted and John Wolley, s.p.; (3) 1600, Alice, da. of Sir John Spencer†, of Althorp, Northants., wid. of Ferdinando, 5th Earl of Derby, s.p. Kntd. 1594; cr. Baron Ellesmere 1603, Visct. Brackley 1616.2
Gov. L. Inn 1580, Lent reader 1589, treasurer 1587; solicitor-gen. 1581-91; member, council in the marches of Wales 1586; attorney-gen. 1592-4; master of the rolls 1594-1603; ld. keeper 6 May 1596-1603; PC 1596; ld. chancellor 1603-17.
Recorder, Lichfield 1582; steward of manors of Colham and Uxbridge 1593; steward of the lordship of Bromfield and Yale, and chief steward of Lyons castle 1595, jointly with his son, Sir John Egerton in 1607; steward of lordship of Denbigh 1594, jointly with his son 1607; supervisor-gen. of lands belonging to bpric. of Coventry and Lichfield 1596; recorder, Cambridge by 1596-1600, high steward 1600; jt. steward of manors of dean and chapter of Chester 1599; chamberlain of Chester 1593-1603; high steward, Oxford 1601; chief steward, Salisbury 1601; ld. lt. Bucks. by 1608-17; jt. steward and keeper of court leet and frankpledge, Tring 1608; master and gov. of chantries of Winchester 1607; chancellor, Oxf. Univ. 1610-17; high steward, St. Albans by c.1600-7.3
Egerton was one of the Catholics caught by a Privy Council directive of 20 May 1569 forbidding their call to the bar until they conformed to the established religion. The council of Lincoln’s Inn dealt with their recusants on 4 June 1570, expelling some students, and requiring others to bring certificates of conformity. Egerton was told that if he brought such a certificate before the end of the term he would be called ‘at the next moot’. He did, and was called in 1572. Among his clients were the bishop of Chester, the dean and chapter of Westminster and the bishop of Bath and Wells. By the time he first sat in the Commons he was solicitor-general, ‘a man indeed with excellent gifts of speech and judgment’. As such he was naturally involved in many state proceedings, such as those against Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, the Babington conspirators and Mary Queen of Scots. He was active against recusants and Jesuits, though in 1588 he made a distinction between traitors and those whose simplicity was misled ‘by ignorant and blind zeal’.4
As solicitor-general in the 1584 Parliament Egerton received £40 for his charges, daily attendance and work in drafting bills and Acts. His elections as knight of the shire for Cheshire may be attributed to his official position, his growing influence and interests in the county, and his ‘loving friend’ the 4th Earl of Derby. As solicitor-general he was appointed to many Commons committees on such topics as church livings (1 Dec. 1584, 19 Mar. 1585), law reform (1 Dec. 1584, 11 Mar. 1585), leather workers (9 Dec. 1584, 16 Mar. 1585), informers (9 Dec.), religion (16 Dec. 1584, 18 Feb., 9 Mar. 1585), fines and recoveries (19 Dec. 1584, 10 Mar. 1585), private bills (15, 21 Dec.), legal matters 5 Dec. 1584, 2, 10 Mar. 1585), procedure (15 Feb., 3, 8 Mar. 1585), fraudulent conveyances (18 Feb., 2 Mar. 1585) and the subsidy (24 Feb. 1585). He spoke on returns and law reform (21 Dec. 1584), wardships, and fraudulent conveyances, earning a rebuke from Thomas Digges for a remark about the ‘levity and rashness’ of some Members. The bill was denied a committal on 8 Feb. 1585. In his second Parliament he unsuccessfully supported a wardship bill, saying that his opinions arose not so much from his position as from his own mind, remarking that he too had children and might ‘have land to leave them’. He spoke on Mary Queen of Scots (4 Nov. 1586), and was appointed to a conference with the Lords on the same day, reporting to the Commons on 23 Nov. Only one course of action would serve—the speedy execution of the Scottish Queen. On 4 Mar. 1587 Egerton attacked the proposals in Cope’s ‘Bill and Book’ to set up a presbyterian church, deploring that ‘the Queen’s supreme authority and government ecclesiastical’ would be ‘quite taken away’, and, interestingly enough, in view of his own late conversion (and perhaps the Dowager Lady Russell’s description of him as ‘an arrant hypocrite and deep dissembler’), that ‘all laws and statutes against the Pope’s authority ... are also made void, and so every one shall be left at liberty to maintain the Pope’s pretended jurisdiction’. ‘The laws and statutes against recusants’ would also be ‘taken away, and so they left at liberty to do as they list’. His committee work in this Parliament included five bills on legal matters, the subsidy (11 Mar.), a religious bill (15 Mar.), letters patent (11 Mar.) and a private bill (15 Mar.). As knight for Cheshire he was eligible to attend the subsidy committee appointed on 22 Feb. 1587. It is not known how he came to be returned at Reading in 1588, following the decision of Robert Knollys, the first choice, to sit for a Welsh county. In the event, and ‘long before’ he was chosen as a member of the Commons on this occasion he received a writ of assistance to attend the House of Lords, the Lords subsequently rejecting the request that he should be released from attendance to take his seat in the Commons.5
In May 1592 he was suggested as a successor to the late Lord Chancellor Hatton, but John Puckering was made lord keeper and Egerton attorney-general. Two years later he was appointed master of the rolls and began his long official connexion with the Chancery. After Puckering’s death, on 30 Apr. 1596, the officers of that court, headed by Egerton, continued with their work and this time no commission was issued for the Great Seal. Clearly Elizabeth had already decided who was to be the next lord keeper. There is some reason to surmise that the selection of Egerton, ‘of whose integrity all men were full of expectations and belief’, was not altogether pleasing to Burghley and Robert Cecil, but he attained office without any ‘competitor or mediator’. Perhaps this was fortunate, since the new lord keeper, as he once confided to the archbishop of York on another matter, was a man ‘unwilling to contend with competitors’. That the Queen herself had few doubts about the qualities of her choice can be seen from the ceremony in which she invested him with the seal, allowing herself to look back over the years to the memory of her first lord keeper, Sir Nicholas Bacon†. She prophesied that Egerton would be the last person to hold this office under her.6
In 1597 Egerton had, for the first time, to perform the parliamentary duties of his position, and, as he pointed out to Cecil, the clerk of the Parliaments and the Speaker were likewise new. In his opening speech, 24 Oct., referring to himself as ‘a poor remembrancer to her Majesty’, he contrasted Elizabeth’s ‘peaceable, happy government’ with the ‘malice of her mighty and implacable enemy’; the ‘peace’ and ‘security’ of the realm with ‘our neighbour countries’ who were ‘torn in pieces and tormented continually with cruel and blood wars’. There was need to reform the law:
the number of laws already made is very great, some of them being obsolete and worn out of use, others idle and vain serving to no purpose, some again overheavy and too severe for the offence, others too loose and slack for the faults they are to punish and many so full of difficulty to be understood that they cause many controversies and much trouble to arise amongst the subjects. You are to enter into a due consideration of the laws and where you find superfluity, to prune and cut off, where defect, to supply, and where ambiguity to explain that they be not burdensome but profitable to the commonwealth, which being a service of importance and very needful to be required, yet as nothing is to be regarded if due means be not had to withstand the malice and the fury of those professed enemies which seek the destruction of the whole state. This before and above all is to be thought of, and with most endeavour and care to be provided for. For in vain are laws made and to little purpose will they serve be they never so good, if such prevail as go about to make a conquest of the kingdom. Wars heretofore were wont to be made either of ambition to enlarge dominions, or of revenge to quit injuries. But this against us is not so. In this the holy religion of God is sought to be rooted out, the whole realm to be subdued, and the precious life of her excellent Majesty to be taken away; which hitherto by the powerful hand and great goodness of the Almighty hath been preserved, maugre the Devil, the Pope, the Spanish Tyrant and all the mischievous designs of all her enemies. Wherefore it is high time that this be looked unto, and that no way be left unsought nor means unused which may serve for defence thereof. ... Now therefore you are to consider how to provide needful and convenient aid in some measure to maintain and support her Majesty’s exceeding charge, which at this present she is at, and is to continue for the defence of the realm. He cannot be well advised which in this case will not be forward to contribute and bestow whatsoever he hath. For if with the commonwealth it go not well, well it cannot be with any private or particular person. ... He that would seek to lay up treasure and to enrich himself should be like to him that would busy himself to beautify his house when the city where he dwelleth were on fire, or to deck up his cabin when the ship wherein he saileth were ready to drown [a favourite Elizabethan figure this], so as perish he must of necessity either with it or for it.
In his closing speech to the Parliament, Egerton made the famous promise that monopolies would be attended to, the neglect of which caused so much trouble in 1601. At the opening of this Elizabethan Parliament, Egerton again spoke (19 Dec.) on the need for money and the dangerous situation in Ireland which had been exacerbated by Spanish intervention. In answer to the Speaker’s request for the usual privileges, he said that the freedom from arrest should not be abused, and that the Queen’s understanding of freedom of speech did not allow of time being spent ‘in idle and vain matters, painting the same out with froth and volubility of words’. At the end of the Parliament, Egerton departed from his notes and conveyed his Sovereign’s appreciation of the Commons. ‘She commanded me to say that you have done (and so she taketh it) dutifully, plentifully and thankfully.’7
Except in Wales, Egerton had little electoral influence, the result of an illogical combination between the lawyers on the council in the marches, some of the gentry who were disgruntled with that institution, and his own policy of asserting the supremacy of Chancery over rival and provincial jurisdictions, whose equitable procedures enabled them to compete with the court at Westminster. Elsewhere he used a little influence on behalf of friends and associates.
Egerton’s retention of the mastership of the rolls provided him with patronage in the Chancery machine where the master of the rolls controlled staff and appointments. The situation drew comment from all sides, suitors complaining that litigation was handicapped by not having a separate master of the rolls. Probably the Queen was playing her old game, keeping Egerton in the office to free herself from a decision about appointing a successor from either the Cecil or Essex factions at court, Egerton being committed to neither. Only after Essex’s fall did various candidates emerge, a leading contender being John Hele I, who was unacceptable to Egerton on the grounds of insolvency, drunkenness, usury and ambidexterity. Still, it may be that a factor in Egerton’s determination to hold on to both offices was his desire for a measure of reform. In Chancery, the master of the rolls had an authority over the clerks which a lord keeper had not, at least without co-operation from his colleague. However, Egerton was in many ways defeated by the system. If he could direct the clerks, he could not control their under-clerks and deputies, nor could he define the lines of demarcation between different departments. In Star Chamber, too, he tried to meet the rising tide of complaints about exactions in the affair of William Mill and the revelations provided by a commission to investigate Chancery fees, Egerton himself insisting, to the embarrassment of the commissioners, that his own office be examined. All Egerton’s best work was done before 1600. He outlived his contemporaries, and as he lost touch with the new generation of lawyers his own performances on the bench became traditional spectacles to be attended just for a sight of the magnificent old man who had for so long dominated the two great judicial tribunals.8
Egerton’s first two marriages were happy, and the early loss of his second wife was a crushing blow. For years he had been employed by the earls of Derby, and his custody of the family papers after the death of the 4th Earl in 1593 involved him in a number of complications over the Derby estates, and led to a disastrous third marriage to the 5th Earl’s widow. ‘God send him good luck’, commented John Chamberlain. She joined Egerton’s household with a retinue of 40 persons, estimated as being likely to add at least £650 a year to his household expenses. She had already conveyed her goods to her brother-in-law, and others, and quickly arranged a marriage between her daughter Frances and Egerton’s surviving son John, who gradually took over the family affairs, business, and correspondence. By 1610 Egerton, now lord chancellor and a peer, was describing his wife as extravagant, greedy and ill-tempered, with a
cursed railing and bitter tongue ... I thank God I never desired long life, nor never had less cause to desire it than since this, my last marriage, for before I was never acquainted with such tempests and storms.
His later years were made miserable, too, by the gout and the stone. Anxious to ‘creep into the country for a change of air ... where there be no rubbish of court nor state affairs to stop’, he would advance reasons of health and rumours of infection as excuses to postpone a return to London. Finally he refused to apply the Seal, which was taken away from him a few days before he died at York House 15 Mar. 1617. He had made his will in good health and perfect memory, ‘yet finding no true comfort nor contentment in this miserable life’. He provided for his granddaughters, and appointed as sole executor his son Sir John, who soon afterwards received the earldom to which Egerton himself had looked forward. Chamberlain noted that ‘he gave nothing to the poor, or to any charitable use, nor to any of his servants, nor very little to his grandchildren, but left all to his son’. In fact, Egerton had, some years previously, made provision for his servants in the form of annuities. Chamberlain guessed that the estate was worth about £12,000 p.a. Certainly the lands were extensive in Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cheshire, Flint, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Middlesex, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Yorkshire. The widow made a determined but unsuccessful attempt to contest the will, and the son obtained probate after the testator had been proved ‘sound in mind and in whole and perfect memory’.9
Ref Volumes: 1558-1603
Authors: W.J.J. / P. W. Hasler
Acknowledgment is made to the Trustees of the Henry E. Huntington Library for permission to use the Ellesmere mss for this biography.
- 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
- 2. CP, ii. 271-2; DNB; Campbell, Lives of the Ld. Chancellors, ii. 179-271.
- 3. P. H. Williams, Council in the Marches of Wales, 348-9; Egerton Pprs. ed. Collier (Cam. Soc. xii), 192; CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 524; 1603-10, pp. 379, 381, 447; HMC Hatfield, vi. 445; VCH Cambs. iii. 59; VCH Oxon. iii. 39; Neale, Commons, 168; T. L. Moir, Addled Parliament of 1614, p. 50; Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, ii. 52.
- 4. Bull. IHR, sp. supp. 11, pp. 10, 11, 12, 14, 23; Egerton Pprs. 96-97; Campbell, ii. 182, 184-5; HMC Hatfield, xiii. 270-81; CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 354, 355, 506.
- 5. HMC Hatfield, iii. 100; HMC 11th Rep. VII, 182; Neale, Parlts. ii. 86-7, 92-4, 125, 161-2; D’Ewes, 334, 335, 336, 338, 339, 340, 343, 344, 345, 349, 352, 353, 356, 362, 364, 365, 368, 370, 393, 394, 395, 405, 406, 409, 410, 412, 413, 414, 415; SP Dom. Eliz. 199/2; Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. f. 80; Lansd. 43, anon. jnl. ff. 166, 170, 172, 175.
- 6. CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 222; HMC Hatfield, xiii. 465; T. D. Hardy, Catalogue of the Lords Chancellors (1843), p. 67; Campbell, ii. 169; W. Camden, Hist. Eliz. (1688), p. 528; T. Birch, Mems. i. 479, 481; Corresp. of Matthew Hutton (Surtees Soc. xvii), 110-11; Bodl. Tanner 168, f. 92.
- 7. Neale, Parlts. ii. 327-8, 332, 355, 366-7, 372, 374, 379, 411, 425-7; HMC Hatfield, xii. 48; Harl. 75, ff. 80-1.
- 8. CSP Dom. 1595-7, p. 337; 1598-1601, p. 544; Campbell, ii. 201-4; Egerton Pprs. 315; Chamberlain Letters, i. 111, 117; Am. Jnl. Legal Hist. v. 12-54; vi. 123-50; 221-49, 315-46; Parl. Pprs. 1830-1, viii. (1); BL, Egerton mss, 2254, f. 128.
- 9. Cal. Carew Pprs. 1589-1600, p. 311; HMC Hatfield, viii. 386; ix. 25, 346, 349, 412; x. 70, 74, 81; xii. 583; xviii. 382; HL Quarterly, xi. 77-9, 105-27, 201-3; Chamberlain Letters, i. 111; ii. 65; Northants. RO Cal. Bridgwater and Ellesmere mss, i. nos. 149, 400, 401; CSP Dom. 1603-10, pp. 308, 353, 587; 1611-18, pp. 404, 408, 438, 514, 527; R. H. Morris, Chester in Plantagenet and Tudor Reigns, 147; PCC 22 Weldon.